Why does the working class vote against its own interests?

This is a perennial question in US politics with many plausible explanations but no convincing ones.. Sean McElwee argues that this is because Republicans have been able to deflect attention from economic issues to social ones.

For decades, thinkers on the left have wondered why the working class regularly votes against its own interests, upending what Marx believed would be an inevitable march from democracy to socialism. In his book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, Thomas Frank argued that social issues obscure economic motives, and indeed the most salient non-economic one has always been race, at least in this country. In America, conservative politicians have exploited racism to their own benefit, first to disempower blacks with Jim Crow, then to undermine the union movement, and more recently to undercut support for welfare programs, as Ian Haney Lopez recently documented in Dog-Whistle Politics. Nixon’s “law and order campaign” played on racial fears, as did Reagan’s denunciation of “welfare queens.” Republicans played at race to win solid majorities for decades while actively working against the interests of the majority of Americans.

McElwee argues that Democrats may be able to craft a winning policy around environmental issues that mirrors the Republican’s success with race. And the Democratic party’s sudden all-night talkathon on climate change indicates that they are testing the waters to see if it is worth trying to craft one.

Kevin Drum is not convinced that the Democrats can ever craft a winning message around anything economic because their hearts are simply not in it.

Democrats have done virtually nothing for the middle class for three decades now. They’re nearly as reliant on the business community for campaign funding as Republicans. Can we all stop pretending that there’s some deep mystery about why lots of working and middle class voters figure there are no real economic differences between the parties, so they might as well vote on social issues instead?

I tend to agree with Drum. The Democrats run on populist appeals to the working classes then fail to not only deliver but to even make a serious effort to implement those policies. Is it any wonder that the voters are cynical?

But then the question becomes which social issues will be paramount in people’s minds when they vote and where the parties stand on them. Of the standard GRAGGS social issues (guns, race, abortion, gays, god, and sex), which one is likely to emerge as the key one for any given election is hard to predict and could well depend on some accident or contrived event close to the election.


  1. raven says

    The Democrats run on populist appeals to the working classes then fail to not only deliver but to even make a serious effort to implement those policies.

    It’s not quite that bad.

    Democrats: Stand by while the GOP cuts food stamps a little and unemployment benefits while standing fast on the ACA. Wind down Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Tea Party/GOP Abolish food stamps and unemployment. Kill the ACA while putting nothing in its place. If possible, abolish Social Security and Medicare. Attack gender equality in employment laws like they did in Wisconsin because only men have families they need to support. Start a few wars.

    There is still a significant difference between the two parties on middle and working class policies.

  2. Chiroptera says

    I’m pretty sure that there are people who feel that protecting fetuses and beating up gay people are more important than making sure that their kids are fed or get adequate medical care. It seems pretty strange, I agree, but there you have it.

    And, as the article seems to imply, there are probably people who don’t see the Democrats as any more of a guarantee that they will be fully employed in a functioning economy than the Republicans are, so they may as well vote for the candidate that shares their values, like an inordinate fondness for fetuses and hatred for gay people.

    But I imagine that there are a lot of voters who really do believe that the Democrats are a bunch of American haters who are out to destroy hard working Christian white men, and that the Republican policies would really bring about a hard working Christian white man’s utopia with good jobs for everyone who’s not a moocher.

  3. davehooke says

    It’s also a perennial question in the UK, and many other countries. If the working classes didn’t vote against their interests there would be no right-wing election winners in genuine democracies.

    The UK Labour has moved to the right thanks to Tony Blair’s reforms, but it still represents the interests of the working class far more than the other two main parties. I think the reason people don’t vote left is demagogic politics and downright media lies.

  4. invivoMark says

    I had the strangest conversation with a self-described conservative the other night. She was a young, recently-married, non-religious grad student, and so it surprised me to learn she described herself this way.

    Upon investigation, she seemed to agree with the liberal side on most GRAGGS issues, but voted Republican because she considered herself conservative and seemed to think that they had better economic sense. The latter might certainly be arguable, although I do not think “economic sense” translates to “economic altruism,” and Republicans do not seem to care whether the masses are better off financially. She did not have a good answer to this, although she seemed to think that my concern was unwarranted.

    Even more bizarrely, the GRAGGS issue about which she was the most passionate in our conversation, and on which she fell decidedly conservative, was race. She was absolutely furious that a colleague of hers, who has some Jewish ethnicity, was able to qualify for a fellowship for minorities. This had absolutely no direct impact for her, and she had even qualified for a fellowship herself, but the fact that someone who perhaps did not need extra assistance had gotten some anyway was enough to work this woman into a fit. She seemed to recognize that racial inequality still exists, and that it is a good idea to attempt to compensate. Life’s unfairness, we agreed, was a bad thing. But for her, the fact that any amount of unfairness was coming directly from a government institution was absolutely unacceptable, even if that unfairness came in the form of an extra grad student fellowship.

    I could not believe how angry she was over the fortune of her colleague, but perhaps there are insights to be had about why the working class might vote Republican.

  5. wtfwhateverd00d says

    Salaries have been essentially flat since the early 80s.

    When Democrats attack that instead of just claiming they support us Democrats will deserve more votes.

    Till then, fuck Democrats. The wall streeters and political class they champion has very little to do with working families. They literally are just a bunch of corrupt masturbators glorifying themselves and demanding my fealty and dollars.

  6. says

    I think it is because the nature of the political environment leaves little but social issues for most voters so they tend to be swayed by them because they are more approachable, and we are naturally more prone to reacting to politics on an emotional level and not a rational one. Logical fallacies and rhetoric are the currency of the system.

    Complexity is a big problem. Most voters can’t or wont get in depth with issues enough to see past the more shallow presentations. Bills are nearly impossible for the average voter to interact with because they don’t have the context to figure out what is meaningful and even congress largely does not read them. Getting to the bottom of a political issue of conflict requires some serious analytical and reasoning skills and most voters are group oriented in their politics so they delegate what they think about most things to other members of their group.

    Add to that political mechanisms that have almost become pure distraction like the filibuster (the moral worth of it depends on whose party is using it most of the time) and politics is 99% theater. The media makes this worse because they want news to be exciting to attract voters so they encourage conflict instead of understanding. The faster many media sources die (especially American cable news) the better (though there are some good people in there drowning in the crap).

    The money problem intersects with this because the funding goes to more emotionally charged campaigns and commercials and are essentially “social munitions” in a war that benefit the people with the money giving them an unfair share of the influence in the process. These powerful people are the real power in Washington and suffer little inconvenience relative to the rest of us. That will not change until enough of the rest of us are so angry and create enough of a problem that the folks with the money and power actually start doing things to make it better for us because they are afraid. So again the emotions rule and not a rational interaction with politics.

    Religion in politics is just a general symptom of the sway that tribalistic psychology has on the process and it’s hard to point at religion without pointing at political parties and other things in general.

    Is human psychology too broad a thing to blame? We kind of suck.

  7. screechymonkey says

    I think the question is flawed. It assumes that people should want to vote based on their own personal interests, as opposed to what they think is best for the country as a whole. It’s really just a nicer way of phrasing Romney’s “47%” argument: that voters will simply vote for whoever offers the most “goodies” to them personally.

    Of course people take their self-interest into account, often to a greater extent than they will admit to or even realize. But voting isn’t really an exercise in rational self-interest maximization. As has often been observed, it is arguably irrational to bother to vote, because the marginal impact of any one person’s vote is almost always zero, and therefore not likely to be worth the time spent for any individual voter. So why do people bother to vote? They do it out of a sense of duty. An idea that they are helping to make their country better through their vote.

    People want to be proud of their vote. Even when Republicans are promising to cut taxes, they don’t just go with slogans about “vote for us and have more money!” They’re smart enough to package that up in a pitch about “freedom” and “liberty” and enabling the “job creators” who are the “engine of our economy,” so that people can convince themselves that voting Republican isn’t some mercenary act they do out of venal self-interest, but an act of patriotism that helps keep their country great/strong/successful. Same thing with the social issues — it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many people will vote for what they see as their values over what they see as their financial interests. In every other context, we praise people for putting principles ahead of money, but when we want their vote, we act like they should do the opposite.

    I’m not saying this a complete explanation. I think there’s a lot to Kevin Drum’s explanation, too — Democrats just haven’t persuaded enough people that they really will help the middle class.

  8. doublereed says

    Republicans have also made themselves out to be the “responsible” party especially fiscally and economically. How they keep this up over decades of irresponsibility and pointless animosity is just astounding. But even now, most people call themselves republican and conservative because of the perceived economic and fiscal responsibility.

    I think we need more Elizabeth Warrens for the Democrats to break that mentality.

  9. moarscienceplz says

    Something I come across quite often is the middle class guy who is vehemently opposed to raising taxes on billionaires because he seriously thinks he himself will be in that tax bracket someday. It’s positively laughable, but you will never convince those people that it ain’t gonna happen.

  10. thinkfree83 says

    It’s amazing how the American worker has willingly abdicated almost all the rights that it won in the 19th and 20th century, especially in the South. In much of the South, “union” is a dirty word. Workers in the South are poorer, earn less, and work in more dangerous conditions and they like it. I think it all boils down to race in the end. Liberals keep waiting for people in the South to “vote their interests” and it just doesn’t work that way. I think it all really boils down to race; in the South, many white people would rather be worse off than support a program that might help black people. The book “When Affirmative Action Was White” explains this in detail, how the New Deal labor regulations had to specifically exclude agricultural workers and domestics (the two professions that most blacks practiced) to win over Southern Dixiecrats, how the TVA had to only send electricity to segregated communities, and how the “ethnic whites” in the North used the various political machines to get public benefits for their specific groups. When the War on Poverty programs finally got around to helping blacks, “welfare” suddenly became a dirty world. It’s the same with public schools. The minute public schools were formally desegregated, white people abandoned them in favor of private schools, homeschooling, and now charter schools. When black people started moving to the Democratic Party, Southern whites moved to the GOP. With this sort of calculus, politics is always a zero-sum game, because there is no way for working class whites and blacks to ever unite.

  11. Ollie Nanyes says

    There is a difference between the parties; has McCain won we probably would not have had the Affordable Care Act or the stimulus bill (which, while being too small, did help).

  12. Suido says

    About that senate talkathon…

    Dunno how deliberate the timing is, but there are early signs that an El Nino will kick off this year. If it does, Australia (which has been breaking heat and drought records even during La Nina and neutral years) is going to become the poster child for global warming effects. Farming is going to be devastated if we endure another decade long drought like the one that broke about 5 years ago.

    As more and more evidence piles up, and the agriculture and other affected industries start agitating for more political direction and action, this may be a great starting point for the Democrats to make the 2016 elections about the environment.

  13. fwtbc says

    I think the lack of quality news sources has a lot to do with it. As suggested in some of the comments above, I get the impression that most of the people voting against their intersts think they’re actually making a sensible choice with their vote.

    Here in Australia, the Liberal/National Party (aka the right wing dipshit party) just keeps repeating that they’re better at managing the economy, and very little of the local media bothers to point out that actually, no, they’re not.

    This also seems appropriate: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ege_RBhh37A

  14. neptis says

    I think something which also contributes to this behaviour is the deliberate effort by politicians to create a rift between the working class and the poor, who are portrayed as lazy wellfare queens etc.
    The interests of those two groups should be very similar, but a lot of working class people would rather see themselves as upper/middle class than admit that they have anything in common with those filthy poors.

  15. Mano Singham says


    As terrible as the situation is in Australia, you have no idea how parochial the people in the US can be. The deniers will say “Australia? That’s the other side of the world. What has that got to do with us?”

    You think I am exaggerating? A couple of weeks ago on a bitterly cold day, the friendly traffic policeman at the crossing in front of my office asked me whether I believed in global warming. I told him that you could not draw any conclusions from local weather patterns over a few days and had to look at global averages and long term trends and that at that very moment Australia was having a massive heat wave. He seemed skeptical that that information had any relevance.

  16. wtfwhateverd00d says

    “you have no idea how parochial the people in the US can be”

    This is almost certainly true, but is there any sort of cross cultural measurement of this to compare? Are there significant populations of people who will not discount the conditions elsewhere when determining their importance to their own lives?

    It seems human nature.

    Adam Smith — Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

    Mel Brooks — Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.

    Are these universal invariants or strictly descriptive of Europeans and Americans?

  17. Nightshade says

    “For decades, thinkers on the left have wondered why the working class regularly votes against its own interests, upending what Marx believed would be an inevitable march from democracy to socialism.”

    Leftist thinkers are simply wrong.Economic issues do not trump all other issues and there is no reason to believe they should.There are other interest besides economic.Cultural,ethnic, racial,ideological (to include religious) are some of them.I believe history shows these almost always trump economic interest..

  18. hyphenman says

    Good morning Mano,

    I apologize for the late contribution to this topic, but I’m catching up on my reading this morning and in working my way through Mike Lofgren’s essay Anatomy Of The Deep State, I came across a quote from Upton Sinclair that answers the question you pose in your headline better than any I’ve ever come across. Sinclair wrote in 1935:

    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

    Do all you can to make today a great day,

    Have Coffee Will Write

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